eternal life

Think About the Future

Romans 4:13-25 (NLT)

Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith. If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless. For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!)

So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses, if we have faith like Abraham’s. For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many nations.” This happened because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who creates new things out of nothing.

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb.

Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.


If you engaged with last week’s sermon, you’ll notice that Paul this week simply continues to discuss Abraham and the nature of faith. I want to focus on a particular idea Paul raises, the importance of hope as an attitude to bolster our faith.

I’m liable to sound a little like a self-help guru today, but frankly, the ones I’ve heard simply repackage ancient concepts found in the Bible, enriching themselves in the process. That’s between the self-help gurus and God, I suppose. Maybe I’m just jealous—I could’ve been rich, if only I were better looking and not feeling bound to give credit where credit is due.

Let’s try a little exercise. I’m going to say a phrase and then we will pause for a few seconds. Here we go: Think about the future.

So, did you get a generally warm, happy feeling, or did you find yourself growing a little anxious? When it comes to the future, are you bullish or bearish?

Some of you felt a twinge of anxiety or fear, and that’s normal. We can always find reasons to be a little anxious. Bad things happen to good people. It’s a fact of life we all learn at a fairly early age.

Whether we let that anxiety control us says a lot about how much hope we carry in our hearts, however. And again, as Paul is telling us, hope and faith are intricately linked. At times, they seem to me to be almost indistinguishable.

Abraham had hope because he had heard from God and kept hearing from God. God was saying to Abraham, I know you’re really old and you don’t have any children by your wife. I promise you, you will. And from that child will come uncountable descendants, and blessings on the whole world.

As we discussed last week, Abraham sometimes struggled with how to move forward in life, but his faith grew even as he made mistakes. He had hope for the future, a future beyond his very long life, and his hope grew stronger as God slowly began the fulfillment of the promises.

He saw those promises fulfilled to the point where he was able to die a happy and confident man, having lived a “long and satisfying life” (Genesis 25:7). He was one who knew God would, in some mysterious way, care for him and his offspring forever.

If you’ll allow me, I also would ask you to think about something else. Think about the promises God has made us. I’m speaking to you as believers, of course—we who call ourselves Christians have accepted as valid and trustworthy these promises I want you to consider.

We are promised that death ultimately is meaningless. Death had great power over us, but Jesus broke that power when he died on the cross. We no longer slam into death and stop. We pass through death, it reduced to a thin veil, and we move on to eternal life with Christ.

We are promised that healing and holiness are available to us now. We are not simply afterlife gazers, people biding our time for a reward to come. We know that a life in Christ means this life, now.

Sure, we remain broken. We struggle, like old Abraham did. We slip and we sin. We carry the pain of wrongs done to us. But the more we engage with God, the more we are changed in this life. We are allowed to taste holiness and heaven now. That means the days ahead in this life should be brighter than the days behind us.

We are promised that the pain and suffering we already have experienced will be put away, reversed, healed in full. This is maybe the most mysterious promise of all, but it certainly should give us great hope. Those terrible events that have happened or may happen will not have everlasting effects. Somehow, God will make even the worst tragedies temporary ones.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes,” Revelation 21 tells us, “and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

See a bright future before you, Christians. Live as people with an unending future, and let hope and joy into your present lives, strengthening your faith.

Eyes Open

A Parable of Jesus, from Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

“He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”


Parables are most effective when we can see ourselves living in them in some way.

Having heard the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, you may be having trouble seeing yourself in the story. That’s understandable. Big lottery jackpot weekends aside, most of us don’t seriously imagine a life of great wealth and constant feasting. I suspect our basic psychological makeup also makes it difficult for us to imagine having fallen so low in life that we could end up lying in the street with festering sores, stray dogs the only creatures who seem to notice us.

And yet, I find this parable to be almost universally applicable.

Certainly, the lesson is taught through extremes of wealth and poverty. But at the same time, it’s not really about the dangers of wealth, nor does it somehow invest poverty with a kind of holiness. Instead, Jesus gives us a lesson for the heart.

Notice something about both men in the first of the parable. They simply are described in their respective states. There’s no evidence they interact; at no point does poor Lazarus actually ask the rich man for anything, and at no point is the rich man portrayed as having denied Lazarus anything. They simply are in proximity to each other.

The parable points out the danger of a terrible sin, a sin we seldom talk about. It is the sin of self-absorption, of being unable to see a need that is before us. It is the sin of unsearching eyes; it is the sin of walking past someone and not caring.

We tend to think, “It is what I do that could send me to hell, to an eternity separated from God.” Jesus is telling us something very different—there is tremendous danger in what we fail to do.

The extremes of wealth and poverty are in the story for a basic reason. They make clear the rich man has no excuse for his failure to act. With such wealth, he could have easily cared for the poor man who had wandered into his circle of influence. The rich man would not have missed what Lazarus required for restored health and a decent standard of living.

The rich man is not being condemned for failing to care for all poor people, just for failing to help the one at his gate. I’m reminded of the story of the thousands of starfish washed ashore on a beach, gasping and dying. A little girl walked the ocean’s edge, throwing starfish into the ocean.

A man came along and said, “Little girl, there’s no way you can save all those starfish!”

“You’re right,” she replied, throwing another one in the ocean. “But I saved that one.”

The rich man could have at least said of Lazarus, “Saved that one.”

Some may protest this interpretation by pointing out how we are saved by faith, not works, and on that point, I would agree. We can do nothing without the grace of God at work in us, and we receive God’s saving grace through a belief in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

Jesus intertwines faith and action in his teachings, however, presenting them as the rope that pulls us from the pit. This parable has much in common with Jesus’ teaching about the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, where he sorts the judged to his left and right—to damnation or eternal joy—based on how they treated the stranger, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned.

The lesson is the same in both accounts: Our actions best reveal whether our hearts rest near the bosom of Christ.

This teaching is good news! We are actually being invited to participate in God’s restorative work in the world. All we have to do is pray that the Christ who saves us also makes us intentional about seeing the brokenness around us. It’s a simple prayer: Lord, let me see, and then make it clear what I should do.

I once worked in a nonprofit relief organization with a woman who required a family to allow her to make a home visit before they could receive any significant aid. I asked her one day why she did that—I could tell some of the families felt they were being scrutinized or even judged.

She laughed, telling me that yes, some of them probably felt that way, but the home visits let her see the needs the families weren’t revealing. Even the poorest people in rural Upper East Tennessee are generally a proud bunch, and the problem there was getting them to ask for all the help our little nonprofit could provide.

When I understood what she was doing, I admired her approach. She was actively searching for need so she could see it and address it.

The end of the parable emphasizes the overall point. The rich man’s last request is that Lazarus be sent to his presumably rich brothers as a warning about the danger of their hard-heartedness. Abraham makes it clear that these lessons about compassion have already been delivered by Moses and prophets, and that men who failed to hear those ancient words would continue in their deafness “even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there again is the great danger of unseeing self-absorption. When we fall into it, we miss God entirely. In God’s greatest work in this world, Christ rose from the dead, but self-absorption can leave us blind to even this great miracle.

Be alert. Ask God to show you the broken people in this world and trust God to help you play some small part in undoing their suffering. Your open-eyed awareness has eternal implications.


The featured image is a detail from Fedor Bronnikov’s “Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Home,” painted in 1886.

In the City

Revelation 22:12-21

What is the greatest city you’ve ever visited? Not everyone likes them, but cities certainly have their allure.

Last week, I talked about a couple of intertwined metaphors, focusing on the one where God is groom and the church is his bride. This week, I want to focus on how our future with God is depicted as a great city. Actually, the way it’s described, this city is almost ridiculous, until we remember John of Revelation is giving us a symbol to describe what our sin-clouded human minds cannot fully grasp.

Let’s look at how the city is described, not only in our text today but in some other descriptions in Revelation.

The city:

  • Occupies the same space as a cube, a really big cube. It would cover most of the United States; imagine a Rubik’s cube balanced on a soccer ball. One mathematically minded-person points out that the city being a cube, and the earth being a sphere, the center of the city’s base could touch the earth—but the bottom corners of the city would hang miles in the air above the ground! The top corners would be 800 miles beyond where earth’s atmosphere ends.
  • Shines with God’s radiance and is clear as crystal, although made of gold.
  • Has streets paved with gold, again, gold so pure it is clear.
  • Sits on walls adorned with precious jewels.
  • Has 12 gates, three to a side, each made of a single giant pearl. These gates always stand open. (I want to hear more about the oysters!)
  • Is constantly lit by the glory of God.
  • Has a river flowing from beneath the throne of God, watering the tree of life.

Lesson 1 in interpreting all of this: Stop being so literal. John probably thought the earth was flat and was communicating to people who also likely thought the earth was flat. We also can assume they didn’t have a clue how far the earth went, or the atmosphere. (I do have to be careful with some of these assumptions; by the time of Revelation, some philosophers and mathematicians, particularly in Greece, had been arguing for centuries the earth was a sphere.) The symbols John chose simply reflect his understanding of the world.

My first symbolic takeaway is that God is expecting a lot of people to turn to him by professing faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. There is room for all!

Also, “purity” is a key word to describe life with God. We’re told rather directly that “nothing unclean will enter [the city], nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” For things not pure, where they ultimately end up is debatable—will it be eternal torment or annihilation?

The lake of fire is scary to consider, but since we plan to be inside the gates, perhaps we’ll just dwell on the joy of a life free from sin and its pain and distractions. It clearly is good to be right with God, made right not through our own work, but because of Christ’s sacrifice.

The city sounds inviting, right? It is. The presence of our loving savior and his holy light make it inviting. That’s why the gates are always open, which reminds us of another Bible story—in fact, John has pointed to that other story before. After Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise, the way back in was closed, guarded by a mighty angel with a flaming sword. But now we get to Paradise and find the gates wide open.

And yes, we are to see the Paradise of Genesis in this vision in Revelation. The tree of life is there, Revelation tells us. We are to eat freely from the tree God denied Adam and Eve after their descent into sin.

The image of God’s garden within the city means a lot to me because I’ve always enjoyed the more pastoral images of life with God. In my mind, there will be trees and mountains, rivers and lakes—all of those places that give us joy now, except more so.

That’s the real lesson of Revelation. Life with God is perfect joy, the final, complete fulfillment of all of this life’s holy desires, which simply are cravings for the presence of God. We are called to live a life of holiness and purity as much as possible now, knowing we will experience the full joy of such a life for all eternity.

God calls you to this place, this life. Revelation 22:17: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

See you in the city.


The featured image is “New Jerusalem,” a folio from The Bamberg Apocalypse, c. 1000.

God’s Big Secret

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

As we move further into 1 Corinthians this week, Paul begins to talk about spiritual maturity and mystery. He has been talking about the message of Christ crucified, but we begin to understand there is deeper knowledge to pursue.

I’ll begin with a word of caution. The idea that there are deeper mysteries to be explored in our faith is true, but it’s also an idea that has been severely abused throughout history. One of the earliest heresies of the church was the gnostic movement, which claimed there were secret mysteries available to only a select few.

We’re not talking about spiritual elitism, however. The deeper aspects of our faith spoken of by Paul are available to any thinking person tuned in to what the Holy Spirit is constantly trying to reveal to us. Your baptism initially opened you to these deeper revelations, and your continual faithfulness to God opens you further and further.

Let’s go back to the basics for just a minute. Salvation is relatively simple. Through Jesus Christ, God intervened so our sins cannot destroy us. Jesus’ death on the cross cancels out the power sin has over us. All we have to do is believe the story is true.

We don’t even have to fathom how the cross works—we just have to believe that it does. This is why children are able to understand the message well enough to have a renewed relationship with God.

We’re called to go beyond the basics, however. In fact, once the Spirit is at work within us, I don’t see how we cannot want to go deeper. We are invited to take on the mind of Christ, at least as much as humanly possible.

Here’s what I believe is the key to going deeper. We develop our understanding of the meaning of the word “grace,” and then we begin to apply that understanding to every situation we encounter.

The definition of grace is pretty simple. Grace is love you receive even though you don’t deserve it. We talked about the cross just a few minutes ago; it is the great act of grace. We are sinners, but despite not deserving eternal life in the presence of God, the cross provides this glorious joy to us.

Eternal life is just the first gift, though. There are other gifts we receive in this life. We simply have to accept them, holding out our hands through prayer and worship. The Natural Church Development program lists 30 gifts available to Christ’s followers; it’s a thorough, useful, biblical list. And of course, there are the fruits of the Spirit, a new outlook on life we can receive.

You would think that after the first experience of grace, we would receive those other gifts with open arms. Grace can frighten us, though. First of all, it implies a need to change, and a lot of us don’t like the idea of change.

Grace also complicates life by interfering with strict systems of rules. Grace is wonderful wherever it appears, but it also brings us into conflict with the comfort we find in rules. Christianity, properly understood, is subversive, constantly asking, “Yeah, that’s the rule, but what about grace?”

Rules can be important, of course. God spent thousands of years interacting with the Jews through the law for a reason. Sin blurs our view of right and wrong. God’s laws are the corrective lenses.

But we’re also a people saved by grace and called to show grace toward others, especially sinners. One of my favorite biblical examples is the story of the woman caught in adultery.

A more modern example would be the issue of homosexuals in the church. Some denominations have what is essentially a “do not enter” policy for homosexuals. On the other end of the spectrum, there are denominations who do not call homosexuality a sin, ordaining and marrying people in active homosexual relationships.

My denomination’s position is nuanced and takes a moment to explain. We follow the Bible, saying “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” but at the same time we welcome all people into worship and fellowship, believing the life-changing and sustaining grace of God should be available to anyone seeking it.

Certainly, we don’t want to condone sin, but at the same time, we never want to stand in the way of God’s powerful grace. And when we balance the two, we find ourselves occupying some difficult middle ground.

It’s also simply not in our best interests to help the church or any other institution act as if certain sinners are cut off from God’s grace. If any of you are, to use an old Methodist term, “perfected,” I’ll apologize in advance, but the odds are that the vast majority of you struggle with some kind of sin from time to time.

Which sin are we next going to condemn as unforgivable, as unrepairable by God? Lust? Dishonesty? Greed? Pride? If we start erecting barriers for sinners, the church will soon be an empty place, and useless as a wellspring of God’s life-changing grace.

Next week, I’m going to explore further what it means for your life if you choose to dwell in the deeper mysteries of faith.

Of Crows and Cardinals

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.1 Corinthians 1:18

To the world, the message of the cross is like cake crumbled in the snow.

I like cake very much, particularly yellow cake with chocolate frosting. My wife knows this, and being an excellent baker and cook, she sometimes makes yellow cakes with chocolate frosting from scratch for me, a loving and time-consuming act in a Duncan Hines culture.

They usually do not last long. But shortly after she made the most recent one, I caught that nasty stomach virus that has been going around. With my first and second child out of the house and my third child very sick with a cold, half the cake went stale before being eaten.

When I recovered, I found the remaining cake in its container. Not wanting it to be completely wasted, I carved the chocolate icing off the top, crumbled the cake, and scattered it in the front yard, where I could watch the birds eat it from the parsonage’s front window as I worked.

This was Thursday, Jan. 30, the last of the bitterly cold days we’ve experienced in Northeast Tennessee. I figured the birds would be quite hungry for yellow cake at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Hey, I usually am. And as I scattered it about, I even heard a rising, collective twitter from the trees at the edge of the yard.

I went back inside and sat down before the window. This is when I began to learn the message of the cross is like cake crumbled in the snow.

About 30 minutes after I put the cake out, two enormous crows landed in a large maple tree overhanging the winter treat. These two will have it all eaten in five minutes, I thought. And they certainly seemed to study what was on the ground, cawing and turning their heads.

I suppose crows have reason to be suspicious of anything unusual. In Tennessee, people can hunt unlimited numbers of them for sport from June through February, despite the fact that no one wants to eat crow. I’ve seen shotgunners do this, using electronic calls to draw them in like black clouds and then drop them like rain. You’re not being paranoid if people really are trying to kill you.

But hey—this was cake, in the midst of the hungry season! Surely the crows would find life in the midst of death. But they did not, overthinking the situation. After a few minutes, they cawed again and flew away. I wondered if their cries meant “foolishness, foolishness” in crow talk.

Other birds remained in the surrounding trees; I couldn’t see them, but their little chirps continued. Finally, two brave female cardinals ventured forth.

The first one out hopped around the edge of the crumbs, looking but not touching. She chirped loudly, in what I suppose is excitement for a cardinal. But she would not dive in. She finally flew from my view. I supposed the cake must have been too different for her, too.

The second one was bolder. She began pecking at the tiny crumbs, and you could see her excitement build. She would stop and chirp loudly, and then return to eating. Once, she briefly flew up in the tree, chirped again, and then went back to the ground, eating some more. She had found what she needed, and not only that, I’m convinced she was trying to tell the others, “Look what I’ve found! Come and have some!” No one joined her, however.

Finally, she grabbed a thumb-sized chunk in her beak and carried it off, again out of my sight. I wondered if she shared it.

I could hear birds chattering through the rest of the afternoon, but to my surprise, the cake remained. As the sun set and the landscape once again hardened into a deep freeze, the crumbs were still there. The scene made me sad.

A postscript, though: When I looked out just after sunrise the next day, the cake was all gone, replaced by dozens of tiny footprints in the snow. The suburb’s undesirables—racoons—had come during the coldest, most desperate hours and found what they could not have expected to receive.

I thought of Gentiles taking up what most good Jews had rejected; I thought of the drunk, the drug addict, or the prostitute accepting what a thinking, affluent person might deem a risk or a waste of time.

The message of the cross is like cake crumbled in the snow. Christ has been broken for us, and in that breaking we have the opportunity to find joy and eternal life. It is a strange message, one now scattered all across the landscape. And it does look foolish to those who are used to the ways of a sinful world.

The message of the cross is a joy to be consumed, however. It also is a message to be carried to others. And be you a crow, songbird or racoon, it is for you.

Grateful to the End

Luke 17:11-19

The lack of gratitude shown by nine of ten lepers remains astonishing. As I’m sure many of you know, lepers were complete outcasts, the walking dead of their day.

They could have been suffering any of a host of skin diseases. There was the modern-day leprosy, now known more formally as Hansen’s Disease, a bacterial infection that in Jesus’ day led to large lesions all over the body. Other skin diseases like eczema or psoriasis could get you labeled a leper, too.

And once you were diagnosed as such, you were to keep your distance from everyone else. The Mosaic law didn’t prescribe a precise distance, but some rabbis thought about 50 yards, half the length of a football field, to be acceptable.

That’s why lepers lived and traveled in groups. The only meaningful human contact they could have was with each other.

As we’ve seen in our gospel story today, one of these groups encountered Jesus, humbly cried out for healing, and received the sought blessing. The healing happened as the lepers made their way toward the priests who would declare them clean. But only one, seeing the healing, returned to thank his healer. Oddly enough, he was a Samaritan, a man considered by the Jews to be unholy simply because of his birth.

And just in case we wonder whether God really expects gratitude from us, God Among Us, God in Flesh, Jesus, commented rather directly on the situation. “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Consider the healing they had received. It was more than just physical. They were restored in many other ways.

They were restored to family. Some of them may not have been able to draw closer than shouting distance to family for years. The close embrace of spouse and children likely was returned to at least some of these lepers. For the ones who did not have such relationships before going into exile, the promise of such happiness now was in their futures.

They were restored to community and all its benefits, including the ability to worship with others, earn a living, and benefit from the protection offered by the larger group.

They also were affirmed in a kind of righteousness many people would have assumed they lacked. One of the subtleties of the laws surrounding leprosy was that the isolation imposed on lepers had little to do with community fear of cross-infection. There’s a lot of evidence lepers weren’t always forced out right away—for example, people suspected of having leprosy might have been allowed to complete a scheduled marriage or stick around for the holy days before being formally inspected by a priest and declared unclean.

In other words, in Jesus’ non-scientific time, skin diseases were seen as being a direct result of sin. The sinner had been marked. If you were healed, you were seen as being back in God’s good graces.

Healing from such an affliction was a big deal, a life-changing event, one worthy of deep gratitude. In the grand sweep of Jesus’ ministry, though, the healing of the lepers was a relatively minor miracle.

We have all been healed in far greater ways. It is a healing offered to everyone and accepted by many. Here’s a classic Bible verse every Christian should know: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

Left to steep in sin, we would rot away to nothing, vanishing from the sight of God. Whatever hell is like, it is nothing but despair. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, however, we are rescued and restored.

From the moment we turn to Jesus and cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” we see our healing begin. As we walk through life, the lesions of eternal death fade. Even though we may face a temporal death, we know we are walking toward eternal life.

And yet, do we return to give appropriate thanks? Do we rush to the places where God expects to find us?

Are we in worship as often as we can? Surely an eternal healing requires a regular routine of thanks and praise.

Do we thank God by responding fully to the calls he has placed on us, calls to discipleship and service to others? Surely the gift of eternal life calls for extreme dedication of this worldly life to God’s mission.

It is easy to take our healing and simply walk back to life as it was before. It is easy, but it is not right.